ALPENA — Sawyer Boyd knew how to make his friends laugh.
A great friend bursting with creativity, the 2016 Alpena High School grad struggled with depression and, in the fall of 2016, took his own life.
Boyd was not alone. A growing number of young adults report feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — enough to lead the U.S. Surgeon General in December to plead with the public to make sure young people get the mental health help they need.
During May, designated nationally as Mental Health Awareness Month, one Alpena business has partnered with a mental health agency to use cups of coffee to connect residents of all ages to help they may need in a time of mental crisis.
And a small group of classmates is finding ways to support others who, like their friend Sawyer, can’t laugh away their mental health struggles.
Communities that embrace artists-in-the-making can save lives, said Gavin MacDonald, one of several founders of new Alpena nonprofit the Sunset Project, which will support the creative work of young people via the Sawyer J. Boyd Creatives Grant.
“There’s tons of people that are creative and struggle with their mental health,” MacDonald said. “It’s an honor to help people using his name.”
Suicide attempts and self-injury among young people leading to hospitalization increased by 45% between the first half of 2019 and the same period in 2021, according to the Children’s Hospital Association.
That jump followed an already staggering increase in self-harm by adolescents and young adults during pre-pandemic years, with suicide rates among U.S. youth aged 10 to 24 increasing by 57% between 2007 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
When Boyd died, MacDonald and several other friends from the AHS Class of 2016 knew they wanted to do something in their friend’s honor to help other young people dealing with mental health struggles.
The result, the Sunset Project, went public earlier this year.
The project’s founders raised money to offer grants to help 16- to 23-year-olds pursue their creative ambitions.
The Sunset Project will buy supplies to help grantees achieve their artistic goals. Supplies can range from a camera for a photographer to tools for a woodworker, MacDonald said.
Project founders hope to expand to art competitions and in-school mental health awareness programs next year.
The Sunset Project aims to let creative young people — who may stray from traditional college or career paths and feel a lack of community support — see that they are valued and embraced for who they are, MacDonald said.
Leaders at the Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority learned about the Sunset Project as they sought ways to mark May as Mental Health Awareness Month.
Building on a collaboration already in place with CHM, the owner of downtown Alpena business Cabin Creek Coffee developed a new coffee blend — dubbed Be Grounded coffee — for sale at the shop while supplies last.
Thirty percent of each purchase of the blend will go to the Sunset Project.
Early in May, Cabin Creek customers started noticing Community Mental Health logos and contact information on their cardboard coffee cup sleeves.
One in five adults have a mental illness, but many don’t know who to call to ask questions or get help through a crisis, said Mary Crittenden, chief operations officer for CMH.
The agency hopes people visit the website and call the crisis phone number listed on the sleeves, even if they just want to ask a simple question, Crittenden said.
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The pandemic has heightened mental stress for many people, and local mental health practitioners are extremely busy, Crittenden reported.
Still, she said, the climate surrounding mental illness is healthier than it was when she came to Alpena a decade ago, when few people talked about it.
Mental health care becomes contagious once it’s accepted as the norm, Crittenden said, encouraging residents to pursue such care, whether through professional counseling, medication, or support groups.
“It’s ok to get help,” Crittenden said. “Mental health matters.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.
In a crisis
To get mental health help in the Alpena area, call the Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority crisis hotline at 989-356-2161 or 800-968-1964. Callers do not need to be in the middle of a mental health crisis to call the hotline.
Mental health by the numbers
Among U.S. adults in 2020:
One in five experienced a mental illness
One in 20 experienced a serious mental illness
More than 12 million had serious thoughts of suicide.
Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness